Like mountain biking, gravel racing is a born-in-America affair. During the early 2000s, cycling adventurers turned their passion for exploring desolate gravel roads into events like the Dirty Kanza 200 and the Trans-Iowa. Gravel grinders, as these events have come to be known, pit cyclists against mixed-terrain courses, predominantly gravel, often over distances of more than 100 miles through rural areas.
Today, more than a hundred gravel grinders have sprung up across the country with strong regional scenes in Oregon, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, and up-and-coming events drawing large fields in dozens of other states coast to coast. The aforementioned Dirty Kanza 200 has exploded from its first field of 38 in 2006 to 1,200 riders, and features 12,000+ feet of climbing on sharp gravel through the rolling Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas. This is to gravel racing what Leadville is to ultra running: there’s a degree of badass cachet associated with it.
Unlike increasingly popular grand fondo events that feature gourmet rest stops and every perk a spoiled rider could want, gravel races like Kanza emphasize radical self reliance and feature few if any amenities, including course markings. Riders get maps or GPS routes ahead of time, then they’re on their own to find their way to the finish — hopefully without getting lost. And if they do, well, that’s part of the adventure.
Many riders enter gravel grinders just to participate and taste the spirit of adventure and exploration they foster. But, increasingly, gravel events are drawing the same competitive cyclists who toe the line at competitive road, mountain biking and cyclocross events. Everyone who loves bikes, it seems, wants to give gravel a try.
The bike industry has responded to the surge in gravel racing’s popularity with a slew of technologies adopted from other areas of the sport to improve performance and comfort out on the rocks. While you can race a gravel grinder on a modified mountain bike, touring bike or cyclocross bike — a road bike is usually inadvisable — the best vehicles for gravel racing come in the form of the new breed of gravel bikes. We put one together using the best technology available to the sport, optimized for comfort, performance and speed.
Shimano Ultegra 6800 Di2 Groupset with R785 Hydraulic Levers and Brakes
Every year component manufacturers roll out new innovations that mildly improve the feel and performance of their groupsets. But Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 groupset with R785 Hydraulic Levers and Brakes is a true game changer. Shimano’s Di2 electronic components have largely become the norm for sponsored teams, who choose electronic shifting because it never goes out of adjustment, doesn’t miss shifts, makes it possible to execute any shift under any load and runs for 1,500 miles without needing a recharge. Electronic shifting makes even more sense on gravel, where bouncing around on a rough surface can cause mechanical derailleurs to work imperfectly under load and where dust, dirt and mud can contaminate mechanical shifting cables. A wide range of gearing options, including an 11-32 cassette and chainrings from 34 to 53 teeth, make this groupset extremely versatile and suited to courses ranging from flat to brutally steep.
The introduction of the R785 levers and brakes that enable using Di2 with Shimano’s new all-hydraulic road disc brake system make this a truly best-in-class solution for gravel. The R785 brakes make one-finger braking with feathery modulation on any surface a reality, while Ice-Tech Centerlock rotor technologies enable truer, easier-to-service rotors that disperse heat better than standard six-bolt designs. Disc brake setups have another added advantage: even if you nail a pothole and your wheels go out of true, you won’t risk brake drag as you would with a rim brake system. On gravel, the combination of Di2 electronic shifting with hydraulic brakes adds up to less hand fatigue, superior braking and shifting and a supreme cockpit experience that no other manufacturer can currently come close to matching.
Clement X’Plor MSO 120 TPI Adventure Tire
If you run anything under a 700 x 35C tire at an event like the Dirty Kanza, you’d better bring a six-pack of tubes and two patch kits. The Flint Hills of Kansas have gravel roads with razor-sharp rocks that can shred your rubber like a great white shark tearing into seal blubber. The Clement X’Plor has become the tire of choice for many gravel participants because it has a large-volume, round casing that runs true to its badged size and a low-profile tread pattern that offers grip in loose gravel but speed on hardpack. The 120 threads-per-inch design results in a more supple and puncture-resistant casing than lower thread count tires and also makes for more durable sidewalls that are less prone to rips and tears. Finally, a folding kevlar bead helps keep the weight per tire to 485 grams, which reduces rotational weight compared to designs like the Schwalbe Marathon Extreme Plus, another popular but much more heavy duty and less supple gravel tire.
Stages Power Meter Ultegra 6800
Cyclists have used power meters to measure and guide performance and training since the invention of the SRM in 1986. Coupled with heart rate data, power output provides provides exceptionally actionable data that can be used to guide both training and racing. Stages puts that technology within reach for more cyclists with its simple, relatively affordable design that integrates a strain gauge into the left-side crank arm, in this case an Ultegra 6800. This setup is uniquely suited for gravel racers because it allows them to choose their hubs and overall wheelsets independent of their power measurement system so they can capture power data at a lower cost and with less complexity and more toughness than spider or hub-based systems.
Niner RLT 9 Frame and Fork
One of the most anticipated new rigs of 2014, the Niner RLT 9 is a multi-purpose workhorse engineered for long days on gnarly gravel, with road-influenced geometry, all the toughness of a mountain bike, the ability to run 29 and 700C wheels and plenty of clearance for tires up to 700 x 45C. That’s some of the best clearance of any gravel frame on the market. Featuring a hydroformed aluminum frameset modeled on Niner’s Air 9 mountain bike design (rectangular-section seatstays and chainstays, six-sided, oversized top and down tubes), the RLT 9 is a seriously stiff, stout frame, but a round 27.2 seat tube helps keep the ride from being too jarring. To keep the ride stable and predictable across shifting gravel surfaces, the RLT 9 has a slack head tube angle, long wheelbase, moderate bottom bracket height, and a tapered steerer tube on the oversized carbon fork.
Niner applies its extensive mountain bike design experience to optimize the strength of the RLT9’s disc-brake-only design: Internal routing for mechanical (or electronic) derailleur cables (or wires) keeps the shifting systems uncontaminated and smooth in dirt, dust and mud; externally routed brake lines make setting up and maintaining these more robust, closed systems easier; fender and rack mounts are ideal for rainy rides and holding gear. Finally, there’s a simple reminder painted on the top tube to remind you what to do with this thing: pedal damn it.
Special thanks to Bespoke Cycles, a shop in San Francisco that specializes in pro service and custom builds for building the test bike for the featured gear.